How the frum community is failing the LGBTQ test

Failing the test. Failing our (gay) children.
Failing the test. Failing our (gay) children.

Right now, the religious community is facing a moment of truth, a test — and failing.

We’re not telling our kids about homosexuality. At least, we’re not telling them the right things. Sometimes, we’re not telling them anything at all. And to a great extent, many of us are continuing to pretend it doesn’t exist.

And that’s hurting all our kids.

It reminds me, a little, of how many intermarried parents raise their kids without one religion or the other. They say, “We’ll let the kids decide when they grow up.”

Of course that’s nonsense. If you’re raised with none, you won’t know anything about either one. You won’t be fluent enough to practice either one as an adult. Plus you won’t really understand what the point of religion is to begin with.

Would you do the same thing with math or English? “We’ll let the kids decide if they want to spell properly when they grow up.” Of course not. It makes no sense, because you have to give them a foundation to build on, even if you’re not the best speller yourself.

Even if we don’t have all the answers, those of us raising our kids with religion do our best to approach the subject with sincerity and joy. And we hope that our children will want to copy us, and follow a similar path when they grow up.

This is the reason we tell our kids about politics, as well as other serious subjects that come up in our lives or in the headlines. Murders, suicides, drug addiction, single parenthood, surrogate pregnancy.

We might not have all the answers, but we tell our kids — each at their own level, obviously! — the basics, tell them it’s okay to ask questions. Questions won’t break the Torah.

And if you ever hope to influence your children, your best chance is when they’re young.

So… getting back to the subject at hand.  What are you telling them about LGBTQ issues?
And more importantly, what messages are they picking up from what you’re NOT telling them?

Are you excluding gay people specifically by not mentioning these issues? Or by the way you talk about them?

If you lived through the late 80s, maybe you remember a particularly unfortunate AIDS joke from that era: “What’s the worst part about having AIDS? Telling your parents you’re Haitian.”

(In case you don’t remember, there were 4 “H” risk groups for AIDS early on: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians, and heroin addicts. The joke is that if you’re hemophiliac or Haitian, your parents would know. Whereas if you’re gay — they wouldn’t.)

Your kids could be gay. You might not know.
The religious community still hasn’t picked up on that idea.

If not YOUR kids, their friends. Your friends’. Your neighbour’s. Someone’s kids are LGBTQ, right here, in the Jewish world.

A lot of early AIDS jokes in the late 80s were one-liners, told by outsiders, intended to marginalize an even more marginal population. To push people away, perhaps out of fear. To say, “They’re not one of us.” Whatever “us” happens to mean.

If you’re not mentioning homosexuality, if you don’t discuss LGBTQ issues with your kids, if they don’t see gay people in their lives, in the books they read, the shows they watch, what message are you sending them?

You’re saying, “Those people don’t exist. And even if they do, they’re not like us, they’re not among us, they’re not us.”

That’s a lie.

Let me back up again. Because maybe it’s not clear where I’m coming from, and what my agenda is here. Because I, like everybody else in this world, have an agenda.

First, I absolutely believe Hashem has a plan for Jewish marriages and families, and lays this out clearly in the Torah.

The Torah outlines some very clear prohibitions and some of these touch on forbidden relationships. A man can’t lie with his aunt… or with another man. These are harsh words, and those of us who take the Torah seriously, who pause on Shabbos because the Torah says so, who avoid lobster because the Torah says so, must seriously grapple with them. There are so many good, good things the Torah asks religious Jews to miss out on. And it’s hard for us to understand why. Sometimes, this level of commitment is painful.

Yet, second, I believe there are people who don’t fit in, who don’t feel they belong, and more importantly, who have been very hurt by their invisibility and exclusion. Hurt and killed. This is important.

The religious community’s neglect of its gay kids is, best-case scenario, making them miserable, and worst-case scenario, killing them.

Being gay isn’t a choice. Many people in the Torah world still act as if it is, but it’s not.

It’s complex. This thoughtful response from Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is a wonderful starting point for what we should all aspire to — and beyond.  (I’d love to hear what the other 2 rabbis said…)

Rabbi Horowitz talks about how these kids have turned to him because their families have been silent. They don’t know where to turn where they won’t be judged and hated. If not judged in fact, judged and condemned by the very silence that surrounds this issue.

If you are a parent, if your kids aren’t heard about this from you, if you have allowed them to believe that this issue does not exist in the religious world, then your silence is a smack in the face. Your silence tells your child that he or she is, in fact, completely alone in the world.

Your silence says that this particular issue is so horrible that it cannot be discussed. That you will not be there for them, to back them up, no matter what. That they are, in your eyes and Hashem’s, monstrous.

The thing most parents don’t get: silence and indifference are not benign.

Silence kills.

Silence and indifference are killing our kids.

But look. I know it’s tough to open up hard conversations. So we put it off. We tell ourselves we’ll talk about it later. Those of us with older kids realize we talk to them about more things, and more complex things, than we did when they were little. That’s natural.

We tell ourselves they’re not ready.  So we’ll put off the gay talk until they’re maybe 17, 18, 20, 24.

That’s a mistake.

Do you know about Huntington Disease?

Stick with me here. Huntington Disease is pretty horrible. Basically, sometime between age 30 and 50, your brain goes haywire. Your body moves uncontrollably, your cognitive abilities are impaired, it’s a mess, and eventually, after years of full-time care, you die.

In the era before genetic testing, the scariest thing about it was that by the time your brain started ACTING haywire… it was too late. Chances are, you’d already reproduced. And in the most common variants of the disease, that means a 50% chance your kids have already inherited the thing.

So it goes.  (as Kurt Vonnegut might have said)

Why does this matter? Because many parents in the religious Jewish world, even open-minded, comparatively liberal parents, are choosing silence over openness around LGBTQ issues.

They figure that by doing this, at least they’re not doing any harm.

Maybe they hope their kids will seek answers on their own.  I wonder if they’d do the same about spelling or math.

But that’s not a great plan. It’s a disastrous plan.

We talk about all kinds of issues with our kids, including deep and perplexing and challenging issues. Death, divorce, drugs, single parenting, addictions, smoking. What are some of the Big Issues you’ve talked to your kids about? I’m guessing there are more than a few.

Even if we don’t have all the answers, we open the subject, like it says in the Haggadah about the child who doesn’t know how to ask a question. They don’t know how or what to ask, so we open the subject for them.

We must open this subject for our kids, but by and large, parents aren’t doing it.

And here’s where the Huntington connection comes in. Because by the time our kids realize they have a same-sex attraction, or that someone close to them does, the damage is already done. We’ve raised them in silence, and the harmful messages are already in there.

Silence = shame. If you’re the kind of parent who speaks openly with your kids about all kinds of issues, your silence on this one issue speaks volumes.

Rabbi Horowitz in the video above speaks heartbreakingly about one of the many young men who have come to speak to him. This boy told him, “I know you can’t help me… but it’s comforting to know that I can come to someone with “Rabbi” before his name who won’t judge me who won’t look at me who won’t make any comments or make a wisecrack. Who won’t judge me and allow me to be able to talk to you at least and to know that I can come back and speak again.”

Make a wisecrack?? Really? In this day and age?

That boy didn’t have anyone to talk to. So many of our boys and girls don’t. And not as many are as persistent in finding wise counsel as this boy was. Not as many are as dedicated to remaining Jewish and remaining religious as this boy was.

What does Rabbi Horowitz do that other people in these kids’ lives aren’t doing?

He listens. That’s all. He doesn’t have more answers than their parents, but where their parents push the kids away with their silence, he’s willing “to listen, to empathize, to understand the tremendous challenge that that these people face.”

It’s not a lot, but it’s a million times more than so many other rabbis.

What Rabbi Horowitz is talking about is essentially offering our kids the same common decency we’d happily offer a stranger. But we have to leave ourselves open so they will come in and have the conversation with us.

Now, here’s where I’m coming from, personally. I’ll admit, and they’ll back me up on this, that I’m the biggest, biggest prude when it comes to my own kids. I don’t want them involved in anything remotely sexual, straight or not, before marriage, and even that not before age 20-something.

But what I do want is that if any of them happen to not be straight, like so many people are not, and even the smart, sane rabbis admit this now, I want them to know that they can tell me.

I want to believe that I’ll listen and maybe see what Rabbi Horowitz and others have to say on the subject. I want them to understand that I love them. That I won’t force them to make a decision one way or another, or to be anything else other than what they are.

What do I need to do so they’ll understand that?  I’m still grappling with that question, but I do know this: silence kills.

Silence slams a door, shutting down the question BEFORE they can ask. Silence tells our children — at least some children, and who even cares how many, because even one is too many — that they are monstrous, unacceptable in our lives, our community, or before Hashem.

Our job is to find ways, as a community and as families, to leave that door open.

I don’t have all the answers. I started this by saying we’re failing this test, and I believe that’s true. At a time when the world is moving into a new era of openness and acceptance, our silence slams doors in our kids’ faces.

Maybe we’d rather not admit that the world is moving into a new era of openness and acceptance. But it is. It’s like denying electricity, or air travel. It exists, so now let’s deal with it. Let’s create halacha and hashkafa around it.

The Torah does not have to change to accommodate the world, but we are inevitably living in that world. Our children see that world and interact with it.

If we want them to believe the Torah is still relevant, they must see that the Torah world can rise to meet the challenges of the world.  We must pass the tests, if not of acceptance and warm welcome, then of decency and open doors.

I welcome your thoughts on this complicated issue.

Boys holding hands photo credit ©  Troy Trolley via Flickr

About the Author
A journalist, editor, translator and children's writer, Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod made aliyah with her family to the krayot, north of Haifa, in 2013. She's the author of dozens of books for Jewish children and families - click to find out more.
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